Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Belinda Leto | Celebrate Birthdays
The name Cuesta echoed across the youth baseball fields of West Tampa for four decades whether it was meant for Pop, the legendary coach at Jefferson High School, or his cousins Gilbert and John on the little league diamonds.
The three Tampe᷉ños won often, but more than that, the three altruistic coaches were devoted to the overall development of their young players and the general welfare of the community. Former major league players Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez, all having played under the watchful eye of a Cuesta, will attest to their influence.
While the Cuestas have retired, another member of the family is carrying on their legacy of community involvement. But it isn’t baseball Gilbert’s youngest daughter, Belinda Leto, is using to impact young people, it’s birthday cakes, an obsession that began when the home healthcare nurse and her best friend and co-worker Celina were introduced to a sobering fact.
“We realized there were children who truly do not get told happy birthday, have never blown out a candle on a cake and never experienced that joy that comes with your special day that God gave you,” says Belinda, who has two boys of her own.
The need became clear to the two friends when they were on a church mission to bring Christmas presents to at-risk families. On their last stop they encountered a grandmother struggling to raise her three grandchildren, none above the age of 7.
“She was trying her very best to keep them out of foster care” recalls Belinda. “She was so grateful. And the kids were adorable. When we were getting ready to say our goodbyes she said to us, ‘I don’t know if you know anyone who can help me, but my oldest grandson is going to be eight next month. I don’t even think I am going to be able to get him a cake or do anything for him. Do you know anyone who might be able to help me with his birthday?’ I looked at Celina and she looked at me and we both said ‘no.’”
Belinda wasn’t ready to give up. After her inquiries to city and county agencies, a foster home and a local Boys and Girls Club couldn’t produce an answer to that desperate grandmother’s question, Belinda and Celina decided to act.
As a result, they created Celebrate Birthdays, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring that every foster child and all children, regardless of personal or financial circumstances, have the opportunity to celebrate their birthday. They serve a five-county area.
“The moment really hit us when we talked to the Boys and Girls Club,” Belinda remembers. “They had no idea themselves but they knew how much our service was needed. They said ‘We have 22 centers, 160 kids in each center, when can you start?’ I said, ‘We’ll take one.’
“It started off very home grown, grass roots, we had some family members, friends helping. We were buying cakes from Costco and BJ’s. We started in the bedroom of a house and we began working with that one Boys and Girls Club and the foster home that we originally called.”
Volunteers and donors responded as the group began throwing monthly birthday parties at 14 different locations. They partnered with Eckerd Connects, Metropolitan Ministries and The One Voice Foundation linking them to families of pediatric cancer patients. They learned as they went along. The early parties featured just the basics, cake, ice cream and maybe bingo, but it didn’t stay that way for long.
“Now all of our birthday parties are themed and the themes offer education at the same time,” says Belinda proudly. “February was a Berry, Berry Fun Birthday (to coincide with the local Strawberry Festival). The kids made their own strawberry shortcakes. We talked to them about the role of farmers and why they are important. The Roughriders (a Tampa non-profit) donated teddy bears to hand out and we talked about their origin and how they got their names. We want to not only spread joy, but to also teach these children and reach them.”
Even the birthday games can be educational including Face the Cookie where the party-goers have to move a cookie from the top of their head into their mouth without using their hands. The game prompted a conversation at the party about how many muscles exist in the face.
“It’s been awesome,” says Barbara Bennett who is the Executive Director at Carlton Manor Foster Homes which has three specialized therapeutic group homes in Pinellas County. “The boys and girls look forward to the parties and I think the ladies love the experience as much as the kids. Celebrate Birthdays get very specific about the wish lists for the birthdays and have come up with some really phenomenal cakes and gifts for them. It’s been wonderful.”
When it began, Celebrate Birthdays was hosting 8-10 birthdays a month, but before the end of their first year as an official 501(c)3, they exceeded 1,000 celebrations.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for in-person parties, but spawned another idea, the Birthday in a Box program. Celebrate Birthdays came up with a list of 16 items to ensure a successful birthday for a child including a $25 gift and a book to promote literacy. While COVID raged, forcing layoffs and isolation, more than 100 boxes a month were distributed.
While some of their community partners are welcoming back in-person parties, the nursing instincts of the two nurses kick in. “We are taking every safety protocol to the max,” says Belinda. “We are looking for volunteers who wanted to get involved. We want to continue what should be one of the happiest moments of a child’s life.” Some might compare it to the joy of a West Tampa Little Leaguer hitting a home run.
“She’s doing good work,” says John Cuesta, who coached West Tampa to the Little League World Series Championship in 1970. “In a way, she’s just doing what she learned from her family.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation